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Dueling political analysts – Part 1 – Stuart Rothenberg

Tuesday, August 29, 2006
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HH: Welcome to the program now Stuart Rothenberg. He’s the editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report. That’s a Washington-based, bi-weekly, non-partisan newsletter, long-time reporter in Washington, D.C. for CNN, a political analyst for them. He’s appeared on Meet The Press, This Week, The Today Show, Nightline. You name it, he’s been on it. Stuart Rothenberg, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show.

SR: Thanks very much.

HH: I was reading over at your blog the latest August 25th post over at the Rothenberg Political Report, and I would recommend it to people. You are upping your estimate of Democratic gains in November from 8 to 12 seats to 15-20 seats.

SR: Right. The environment is not improving for Republican candidates around the country. There’s no indication that it will. And increasingly, I am familiar with…there’s both public, but also private polling suggesting real problems for Republican incumbents. The Republican polling shows the Republican vote down. It shows Democratic challengers who are unknown getting a surprisingly large percentage of the vote. What we’re really seeing is that voters are simply inclined to change, for change, and that’s hurting Republicans.

HH: Stuart Rothenberg, let’s get specific. Let’s walk through, let’s say, a dozen to fifteen of these races where current Republicans, either incumbents or open seats, will be lost. I’ll let you pick them in the order you want to go.

SR: Well, we think that right off the bat, there are three open House seats, Republican open House seats, that are in serious trouble. These are toss-up races, all things being equal, but in 2006, all things are not equal, and they won’t be equal. And so, we have a seat that Jim Nussle is giving up in Iowa to run for Governor. We have a seat in Colorado where Bob Beauprez is giving up to run for Governor, and Congressman Colby in Arizona is retiring. These are all toss-up races that we think the Republicans now are behind, and probably will lose.

HH: All right. So that’s three. Next tier. And if you can give me the number, that makes it easiest for all of us.

SR: Okay, so we have the three opens I gave you. You want the number of the districts?

HH: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

SR: Wow.

HH: This audience loves the specifics.

SR: Amazing. You’re a real junkee here. Yeah. Iowa 1, Colorado 7, and Arizona 8.

HH: Great.

SR: Then we have three Indiana seats where incumbent Republican members of Congress are trailing in everybody’s polling, and are clearly in serious trouble. Chris Chocola in Indiana 2, this is a Northeastern Indiana district, John Hostetler, Indiana 8th, Southwestern Indiana district, and Congressman Mike Sodrel in Indiana 9, right next door to 8. Some of this has to do with very specific factors. Sodrel is being challenged by the former Congressman, Baron Hill, who lost by a few hundred votes last time. It’s a pretty Republican district, but obviously, Hill begins with credibility. He’s ahead in the polls. Hostetler always runs mediocre races. Usually, the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee has to dump lots of money in to save him. They would have to do that again. The Democrats have a very strong candidate, a sheriff. And in Northeast, Chocola has a repeat opponent.

HH: What kind of leads are we talking about here for the Democrats? Is it 3, 5 points, Stuart Rothenberg?

SR: Generally, we’re talking about that, yeah. 3-5 points. But remember, Hugh. Incumbents are not supposed to be behind. They’re not supposed to be behind at all. And their internals are bad. That is, they’re showing high unfavorables, high Democratic generics. That is, the Democratic generic vote, the base vote. If the election were held today, would you vote for a Republican or a Democrat. The Democratic number is higher than it has been. In some cases, it’s still a Republican district, like Sodrel’s, but we’re seeing voters more willing to vote for Democrats. And we have an added problem in Indiana for the three Republicans, and that is Governor Mitch Daniels, who has terrible job approval numbers. So you add Daniels’ problems to Bush’s problems to these local problems, and you have three serious problems for Republicans.

HH: All right. Seats 7-10.

SR: Well then, we have ten toss-ups. And in this kind of year, a lot of people might assume well, toss-ups will break 50-50. They don’t. If you have a wave, if you have a strong wind behind one party’s back, that party tends to win the overwhelming number of them. So we have ten pure toss-ups. My guess is the Democrats will win, I don’t know, pick a number. Eight.

HH: Okay.

SR: Anyway, in this group, we have Connecticut 2, Rob Simmons, Florida 22, Clay Shaw, Kentucky 4, Jeff Davis, New Mexico 1, Heather Wilson, North Carolina 11, Charlie Taylor. We have Ohio 18, the Bob Ney open. That may turn out to be a little better than this for the Republicans, though we have it as a toss-up. It may be tilting Republican, or leaning Republican, but the Republicans have a special election scheduled for the middle of September. This was the seat that Ney gave up. And so, the Republicans don’t yet have a nominee. And so, we’re waiting to see how it plays. For the moment, we have it as a toss-up. Deborah Price in Ohio 15, this is a Columbus-Franklin County district, Gerlach in Pennsylvania 6, the Southeast Pennsylvania…it includes a number of districts, a number of counties. Pennsylvania 7, Curt Weldon, who has not ever had a serious race, now does, and in Virgina 2, Selma Drake. That’s the next ten, and we would guess the Republicans could certainly lose 8 out of those 10. 8 plus 7 is 15. And then, we have another 7 toss-ups that are tilting Republican, at least 2, 3, 4 of which could go Democratic.

HH: And let’s go run those seven as well.

SR: This is a toss-up, tilting Republican. They’re toss-ups in the broad sense, but we try to push races one way or the other…

HH: Sure.

SR: …as you can imagine, Hugh, it’s pretty easy to throw everything in a toss-up and say who knows? So these are toss-up, tilting Republicans. Connecticut 4, Chris Shays. Some of your listeners may not think he’s really a Republican.

HH: I don’t think he’s really a Republican, but nevertheless, he votes the right way on organization.

SR: (laughing) He actually is in a little better shape that we thought he was going to be. Shays in Connecticut 4, this is Fairfield County, the Southwestern corner of the state. Nancy Johnson, a very feisty, terrific campaigner north of Shays’ district. This is like New Britain, up there, she has a very tough race. Illinois 6 is an open seat. It’s Henry Hyde’s seat. It’s a lean Republican Congressional race. The Democrats are really hyping this district, because they have Tammy Duckworth, who was injured severely, lost some limbs in combat, is a good candidate. But we think it tilts Republican. Minnesota 6, this is an open seat. Mark Kennedy is giving it up to run for the Senate.

HH: Yeah, Michelle Bachman is staging a pretty good surge right now.

SR: I think Bachman is a very good candidate. My problem with the race from her point of view is that she has been trailing in early polling by somewhere between 5 and 6 points. I think she’s a better candidate than Patty Wetterling. I think Bachman fits the district well. But it’s still dangerous. Ohio 1, Chabot in the Southern part of Ohio, and then two other Pennsylvania guys, Fitzpatrick in Pennsylvania 8, another Philadelphia suburban district. And up in the Northeast part of the state, a guy who should not be in any trouble, except for some personal problems. That’s Don Sherwood in Pennsylvania’s 10th Congressional district.

HH: So we’ve got here a total of 23 races, of which the Dems need a net of 15.

SR: It’s 24, but yeah, the Democrats need 15. And they might need even more if the Republicans pick up a seat or two that the Democrats now hold. We don’t say…at the moment, we don’t see a seat, but it certainly could happen. But they have to win a high percentage. You’re right.

HH: Let’s switch over to the Senate now, and get your lay of the land, as we head into the Labor Day launch. You…I was reading in the Pittsburgh Tribune that you don’t think Santorum is still one of the top three races. You think he’s still a goner?

SR: Well, you know, when you say what’s one of the top races, I think he is in very difficult shape. If he’s down by six points, with a high negative, in a state like this, he’s been on the air, I think it’s very difficult. We have it as a leaning takeover. Does that mean it’s over? No. We’ve moved races back and forth when need be.

HH: And Casey’s been a phenomenally weak candidate in elections past, right? I mean, he was way ahead of Rendell, and collapsed.

SR: Right. He was way ahead of Ron Clink, for example…

HH: Excuse me. Yeah.

SR: Yes, yes. His problem is, his gubernatorial candidate is not doing well in the governor’s race, the Republican candidate for governor, Lynn Swann.

HH: Lynn Swann, yeah.

SR: …is not doing well, and Santorum has gained some ground, but he’s still behind. We have Santorum and Conrad Burns of Montana as the two most vulnerable Senators. They’re both behind in polling, they’re both trailing. We don’t like their chances.

HH: Okay.

SR: After that, there are two more Republicans who have been in serious shape. We have them as toss-ups, Chafee in Rhode Island, who has a very difficult primary. I think he may well lose…

HH: Would it be true. From your lips to God’s ears. But go ahead.

SR: (laughing) He may well lose the primary.

HH: That would be good, yeah.

SR: …to Steve Laffey. And Mike Dewine is in the toss-up. Those are the…

HH: Now he traditionally closes…I’m a Buckeye, and I know Dewine. He traditionally closes very strong, aw shucks, go Bucks, and it wins.

SR: The Republican Senate Campaign Committee is just going up on the air now with ads for him. His problem, as you know, is not just the national environment. It is that the governor of Ohio has got a job approval probably, maybe it’s all the way up to 20 or 22% now. But…

HH: He’s making Murkowski look strong. You’re right.

SR: Bob Taft has been a disaster. And so the whole state ticket is in trouble. This could really be a bad year. As some of your listeners may know, back in the early 90’s, the Republicans just swept through Ohio, winning every state office. They hold every statewide office now. And so they’re particularly vulnerable for a time for a change Democratic message.

HH: But luckily, the Democrats that have been nominated, both Sherrod Brown against Dewine, and Ted Strickland against Ken Blackwell, are hard left Democrats. They’re to the left side of their party.

SR: I think that’s probably a reasonable statement about Brown. I think Democrats would argue strongly about Strickland, that they would argue that he is a cultural moderate. And that’s how he was able to win that Southeastern Ohio district. But in any case, Sherrod Brown is a decent target for Mike Dewine. Dewine has plenty of stuff on Brown, and we’ll see whether he can pull that out. Then the 5th most vulnerable Republican is Jim Talent from Missouri, who is a very good campaigner, is a bright, personable, articulate guy. He ought to be ahead by 8 points now, but it’s just a bad environment nationally, and so that race is even. So that’s the Republican trouble. The Democrats need to pick up one other seat, even if they run the table with those five and hold their own.

HH: Do you see them vulnerable in, say, Maryland, New Jersey, Washington State, Michigan, the places that we’re looking at closely?

SR: Well, we’ve had New Jersey as a toss-up for a long time, because I think that to beat a Democrat in this environment, the Republicans will need special circumstances, and I think they exist in New Jersey, with an appointed Senator, appointed by a governor who is now unpopular, and with a Democratic Senator who has some personal ethical baggage. At least, that’s what the Republicans argue. I think that’s the best Republican chance. A lot of people think Mike Steele in Maryland has a chance, depending upon who the Democrats nominate. They think Minnesota’s a possibility for Kennedy. I think less so. And you know, I’d keep an eye on places like Washington with McGavick, and Michigan where Bouchard is a reasonable challenger to Debbie Stabenow.

HH: So you sound very skeptical of a Democratic ability to take over the Senate.

SR: I don’t have them there, yet. I mean, we’re calling the House at 15-17, and I think right now, 15-20. If you forced me to pick a number on the Senate, I’d say probably four. Santorum, Burns, Chafee, and maybe Dewine. But I would say four, and they need six. And so, I still think that the Senate is harder for the Democrats. If you talk to Chuck Schumer, he’ll point to history that the House has never turned without the Senate, but these things are very quirky. It depends on the class that’s up, exactly how many seats need to turn. So I still think the Republicans are more likely to hold onto the Senate than not, and that the Democrats are more likely to take over the House than not.

HH: Last question, Stuart Rothenberg. The London bombing, and the march through the World Trade Center movie, the movie next week, The Path To 9/11, the ABC special series, the commemorations of the 5th anniversary of the ongoing war, the nature of the jihadist menace, these are very unusual factors. Is it possible, Stuart Rothenberg, that the reliable guides from the past are simply not applicable in a time of war and terrorism?

SR: Is it possible? Sure. We’ve had a lot of twists and turns. I remember two years ago, we were all writing, those of us who are kind of reporters and handicappers and analysts, we were writing about the terrific Democratic turnout operation, particularly in Ohio, and how Democratic turnout efforts in Florida and Ohio could well turn the presidential election two years ago. What we missed was a terrific Republican turnout operation in Florida and Ohio and elsewhere. So sure, it could happen. The problem is, the President still has an advantage on the war against terror. It’s not quite the advantage he had two years ago, and the American public is making more of a distinction between Iraq, per se, and the war against terror now, that distinction, than they were making in 2004. The fact that they put those two together in 2004 was part of the reason George Bush was re-elected. At the moment, they’re separating the two. It’s up to the Republicans to focus more attention on the larger war against terror. That would probably help them.

HH: And do you think the public thoroughly understands, left, right and center, that the Democrats will be for withdrawal from Iraq on a timetable, regardless of the stability of the Iraqi government?

SR: I think at the moment, the public is unsure where the Democrats are on any issue, except that they’re not the Republicans. And it’s all about change. And Hugh, it is…while sometimes, elections are about choices, and Ken Mehlman was absolutely right when he said the Republicans would be better off if this election was about a choice. Often, midterms are referenda. And a referendum in this case, is bad for Republicans.

HH: Have the Democrats done a good job of keeping it ambiguous, or did they perhaps bring too much clarity, Stuart Rothenberg, by every member of the leadership declaring for retreat in Iraq?

SR: They have an agenda, they have talked about new direction. They…I mean, I think it’s clear where most Democrats are on Iraq, but I think for the moment, the election is not a referendum on, as you put it, retreat or not. If it was, I think we’d have a different dynamic. But I don’t think that’s where it is now.

HH: Do you think it’s possible it’s going to become that?

SR: I try to be very open-minded about the future, since I’m not sure what’s going to happen tomorrow in my life, let alone two months from now, okay?

HH: Stuart Rothenberg, a great pleasure talking to you. I look forward to checking in with you again. The Rothenberg Report available on the Rothenberg Report Online. Thank you, Stuart.

SR: Thanks, bye.

End of interview.

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